HUNGARIAN WRITER FRIGYES KARINTHY, in his story Chains (1929), states that human relationships are determined by a separation of six degrees, or less, from person to person, a theory popularized by John Guare’s play aptly titled Six Degrees of Separation. But as far as the dissolution of the subject is concerned, Eduardo Lalo’s novel Simone, recently awarded the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize, seems to me like an extension of such theory if we submit the two main characters to existential scrutiny. Loneliness, silence, invisibility, desire, language and the city are the six points of connection/separation between an anonymous narrator -who looks for meaning in a life made of fragments- and a character who calls herself Simone.
As an unprecedented distinction in Puerto Rican literature, the Romulo Gallegos Prize puts the Caribbean island in the spotlight of Latin American Literature. No doubt: the award has been previously granted to distinguished literary presences, such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Roberto Bolaño and Ricardo Piglia, just to name a few. But, as a literary object, Simone is made from the stuff of great works of literature.
In several ways, the lives of the two characters helps us to rethink the material conditions of life in the city of San Juan, which the narrator reconstructs as a collection of quotes and narrative fragments that underpin the structural principles of the work. Thus, the formal aspects of the order are superseded almost like a scale model of the great novel in modern Puerto Rican fiction, En Babia (1940), the long lost and forgotten work by José I. De Diego Padró, set in New York City, and, most certainly, in Lalo’s the reading list.
Thus, Simone recreates glance of the flâneur –the stroller who walks the metropolis- in a small city like San Juan. The scope even turns and dwindles to lonely afternoons in shopping centers, these cities within the city that are already social referents in consumerist societies.
Here, in Simone, we find the musings and meditations on invisible countries, discharged into the nihilism of the narrator and trying to make sense of the seemingly unrelated. Here, sadness, pain, melancholy populate the text as innate states of existence in the Caribbean.
But language is not natural: we are not born with it; we must acquire it. Speech is intercourse, Octavio Paz once wrote. No intercourse, no language.
At the end of the novel, when Li goes away and becomes a verb in past tense form, the narrator confesses: "I could not make a gesture or a word." Then he adds: "My cry for help was silence and immobility."
There is a more interesting (but less crystalline) portrayal of 21rst century Puerto Rico underlying Simone: we are a transcultural nation in the making. The presence of Asian cultures seem like a natural element in Puerto Rican society, where the Caribbean repeats itself more than ever, as it converges with European and American cultures. As Lalo himself put it in a recent interview, “I live in an invisible country”. Maybe the time has come to start looking at Puerto Rico with new eyes.
But strangely, the overpowering theme is Simone is love, in its various gradations and its redemptive possibilities.
Like philosophy, love is always seeking truth.
It is the glue that keeps the unnamed writer together as he walks the streets of San Juan, reading and writing, listening to their passersby, trying to understand them from the distance. However, the unbearable ordinariness that the city suffers tames the narrator.
San Juan not only is portrayed as a scorched region, climatologically speaking, but also as a place with a linear sense of time, complete with expressionlessness and monochromatic idiosyncrasies. Isn’t the sun a kind of disease?, asks the narrator at some point. The people in San Juan are not able to access the city because their poor linguistic capacities. Language, sometimes truncated and misguided by others, is an impediment. But it requires love to despise a city.
The center of the narrator’s longings is the woman of Chinese origin whose real name is Li Chao. Idyllic love arises: disembodied love.
The affair initiates when Li Chao starts sending a series of anonymous texts that captivate the narrator. It is a love without physical dimension until they finally meet. "With arms and legs entwined, our bodies were reborn," says the narrator. The words take a female form.
Simone was a confessed lover of the protagonist’s novels, so, almost with a causal relation, mutual textualities lead to the meeting of the bodies and, hence, to the birth of an erotic relationship between the two protagonists. Also, the woman will lead our hero on a journey under the city’s skin to reveal a world inhabited by "invisible" people. The two loves -the one the writer feels for San Juan and the one he feels for Li Chao- traverse loneliness, silence, invisibility, desire, language and the city, and consolidate in a higher love: the love for words.
From a narrative standpoint, ethical conflicts are linked masterfully to tell a story where, after all, language is the possibility where we exist and love. You cannot exist without love, and you cannot love without language.